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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming

The National Book Award winner this year for young people's literature was Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. Initially I didn't think it would interest me, as it is a book-length poem about the experiences of an African-American girl growing up in the north and south. As old as I am I should know better, that it's not the subject, it's the quality of the writing. Interested in seeing if this would be good for sixth-graders, I checked it out, and it's brilliant.

Woodson is about my age, born in the early '60s, in Ohio. Her mother came from South Carolina, so when her parents split she moved there. Her father railed against the South, with good reason, of course. Woodson lives with her loving grandparents, but when her mother moves to New York City she moves, too, but summers down in Greenville.

I'm hard pressed to think of any cataclysmic that happens in this book. Just the stuff of life, but she renders it so beautifully that it reminds us that the stuff of daily life is cataclysmic--every day brings a new surprise, and our lives are like flowing rivers, branching and eddying.

The poetry is free verse, although she breaks in every now again with some haikus. Some are very pointed, like:

"In the stores downtown
we're always followed around
just because we're brown."

Racial prejudice is always on the surface, such as when she accompanies her grandmother to ride the bus:

"Even though the laws have changed
my grandmother still takes us
to the back of the bus when we go downtown
in the rain. It's easier, my grandmother says,
than having white folks look at me like I'm dirt."

But we also follow Woodson as a future writer. It's her older sister who's the smart one:

"When we can't find my sister, we know
she is under the kitchen table, a book in her hand,
a glass of milk and a small bowl of peanuts beside her."

Woodson, though, learns to love to read and tell stories:

"If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You're too old for this
maybe
I'd never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.

You may find yourself shedding a tear or two by the time the book is over, especially when Woodson's beloved grandfather, who she calls Daddy, dies:

"On the day he is buried, my sister and I wear white dresses,
the boys in white shirts and ties.
We walk slowly through Nicholtown, a long parade of people
who loved him--Hope, Dell, Roman and me
leading it. This is how we bury our dead--a silent parade
through the streets, showing the world our sadness, others
who knew my grandfather joining in on the walk,
children waving,
grown-ups dabbing at their eyes."

It turns out it's too late to order any more books, so Brown Girl Dreaming will have to wait for next year's class. But it's a book for all ages, as the best books are.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Holes

Now that I'm a sixth-grade teacher, I'll have to much more attuned to literature for young people. One book that is very popular with that age is Holes, by Louis Sachar, which I started reading with my class this week. I polished it off in one day.

I saw the movie made from the film years ago, which I believe was the first starring role for Shia LaBeouf. I remember the film as being very imaginative, and most of that come from the book. The only main difference I can remember is that the main character, Stanley (LaBeouf in the film) is fat in the book.

Stanley Yelnats (a palindromic name) has been sent to Camp Green Lake, which is neither green nor has a lake (just a dry lake bed). It is a camp for juvenile delinquent boys. Stanley was arrested for stealing a famous baseball player's shoes, though he is innocent. The punishment for the boys is to dig a hole every day in the hot Texas sun. It doesn't take too much to figure out that the warden of the camp is using the boys to look for something.

There are some parallel stories about Stanley's great-great-grandfather, who had a curse put on him by a Latvian gypsy, and then later was robbed by a legendary Western outlaw called Kissin' Kate Barlow. The book is full of dry humor, a kind of world-weary shrug, but also is about doing what's right. Their is also a lesson in racism, as a man is killed for kissing a white woman.

So far my students are enjoying Holes. Some of them have already read the book and seen the movie. I'll be showing them the film after they've read the book, and commenting here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Okay, so it's time once again to catch up on movies that received Oscar nominations that I missed while they were in theaters. I start with one of the nominees for Best Animated Film, How to Train Your Dragon 2. Because The LEGO Movie was not nominated, I hadn't seen any of the five films.

Without having seen the others, I think this will be tough to beat. It is a sequel, and I have an old fogey aversion to movies with numbers in their titles, but this one is better than the original, and is an amazing technical achievement, even if it is all CGI. At times I forgot I was watching animation.

It's five years after the end of the first film. Berk, a rocky outcropping filled with Vikings with Scottish accents, have learned to live with the once-feared dragons. They treat them like horses, and it's implied that the dragons like this servitude because they are pampered, but a well-paid slave is still a slave.

Anyhoo, our hero, Hiccup, who is now 20 years old, rides his dragon. Toothless, far out over the sea to explore new lands. He and his girl, Astrid, get themselves caught by dragon-trappers, and learn of a villain called Drago Bludvist (with a name like that, how could you be anything but a villain), who is capturing dragons and turning them into an army so, wait or it, he can destroy all dragons.

Hiccup, idealistic, tries to negotiate for peace. He finds his long-lost mother, who has become sort of the Jane Goodall of dragons, and this all leads to a climactic finish when two "alpha" dragons, who are big as cruise liners with massive tusks, go at it.

As many animated films are these days, this one is pro-environment, with a little "can't we all just get along?" It also borrows from the age-old Disney template with a trio of characters providing comic relief, who are voiced by Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, and  TJ Miller. Craig Ferguson, Gerald Butler and Cate Blanchett are also featured, with Jay Baruchel, strangely without a Scottish accent, as Hiccup and America Ferrera as Astrid.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Oscar 2014: Best Supporting Actress

"Mommy's going to win an Oscar!"
Three of the four acting categories this year in the Oscar race don't have much suspense. The least suspenseful is Best Supporting Actress, where one person has swept all the precursors.

That is Patricia Arquette, for her role as the mother in the twelve-year long filming of Boyhood. When I saw this film in the summer I could see it was an Oscar-type role. Not only is she good, but she allowed herself to age, naturally. She goes from her early 30s to her mid-40s, and did not hit the gym or get plastic surgery. With the dearth of roles for women past 40, I think this resonates, at least with the acting branch.

If anyone has a chance at an upset (and it would be completely mind-blowing) it would be Laura Dern, for her role as the mother in Wild. Dern is kind of an actor's actor, having worked with everyone and being well-respected in the business. But the role is a brief one, and it won't happen this year.

The other three need not prepare a speech. Emma Stone, as the out-of-rehab daughter of Michael Keaton in Birdman, and Keira Knightley, as the lone female working to crack the Nazi code in The Imitation Game, are both fairly young. Knightley has more experience, and this is her second nomination (the first was for Pride and Prejudice) so she may have the edge for third place. Stone is clearly a major star in the making, and will have many more nominations, so she will have to wait her turn.

Finally, Meryl Streep, with her 19th nomination, has already won three awards. I don't expect her to win a fourth, at least not before she is 80 (Katharine Hepburn did win four). I don't even think she was the best person to nominate in this category from Into the Woods. I would have preferred to see Anna Kendrick here.

Will win: Patricia Arquette
Could win: Laura Dern
Should win: Patricia Arquette
Should have been nominated: Kim Dickens, Gone Girl

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ultraviolence

I'm so out of touch when it comes to contemporary music that I falsely dismiss some people because I assume they're like someone else. All I knew about Lana Del Rey is that she said a dumb thing about wanting to die young, and that Eminem wanted to punch her in the face. I assumed she was yet another disposable pop star. But then I read people who were not thirteen years old praising her album, Ultraviolence, as one of the best in the year. I bought it, and while I wouldn't say that I loved it, I was intrigued by it.

I'm not sure how to classify her music. Wikipedia calls it "Dream pop," or even more mysteriously, "Baroque pop," whatever that is. I would also say there are elements of jazz and lounge to her style, a smokey sophistication that is miles ahead of pop tarts like Ariana Grande or Katy Perry. This young lady has some stuff.

There is a dreamy quality to her music, full of hypnotic melodies and smooth sounds. One thing I dislike about the album is that many of the songs sound the same, and even after several listens there are only a few songs that I could identify. One of them, the very fine "Old Money," steals a bar or two from the theme of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.

Lyrically Del Rey is strong (she co-wrote all songs, so I don't know if the lyrics are hers or not). She doesn't have a lyric sheet printed, but kindly offers a few lines from each song. From "Old Money" we get:

"Blue hydrangea, cold cash divine,
cashmere, cologne and white sunshine."

From "Cruel World" comes:

"I shared my body and
my mind with you--
that's all over now.
I did the best I could,
I've found somebody new."

Del Rey also doesn't hesitate about using profanity, earning a nice warning sticker. One of the songs can't even be said in polite company--"Fucked My Way up to the Top."

Vocally, Del Rey has an ethereal voice that simulate floating, occasionally hitting the high notes with elegance and grace. Ultraviolence is a decent album, and proves that I should actually know what I'm talking about before dismissing someone out of hand.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

American Sniper

Here's an easy way to determine if American Sniper is the movie for you: Sean Hannity said it's the best movie of the year. Like most issues, Mr. Hannity and I disagree. I certainly can see why he likes it--it takes a simple, black and white view of the war in Iraq, without any of the disturbing complexities, such as it was the wrong war at the wrong time, and it also presents the enemy as sub-human villains. Our hero, Chris Kyle, frequently talks about evil in the world. Yes, there is evil in the world, but it can be found everywhere, including right in the U.S.A.

American Sniper is the movie for pickup driving, country music-loving, Fox News watchers, and why not? They're entitled to it. But the problem is is that it says nothing new about these wars, which were the longest lasting in American history. Furthermore, it says nothing about the main character, other than that he was a patriot and that he had communications problems with his wife. I'm hard pressed to understand why Clint Eastwood even made this movie.

The title character is Chris Kyle, played excellently by Bradley Cooper (he is the main reason to see the film). Kyle is a part-time rodeo rider (his day job is never shown) who decides to become a Navy SEAL after an American embassy is bombed. His motives, as presented by the screenplay, are pure. He is raised by a father who sees life in simple terms--there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs, and he wants his son to be the last.

Kyle, because of a gift for shooting, becomes a sniper, mostly sitting on rooftops, picking off those who would be a danger to his fellow troops. As the film opens, he is faced with having to kill a child and his mother, because they are carrying a grenade. After four tours of duty, he has 160 kills, a record, and a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Waiting at home for him is his wife (Sienna Miller) and their two children. She implores him to come home, saying he has done enough and should put his family first, but it's not until his fourth tour, when he's seen too many friends die, that he does finally come home. But he's still on a hair-trigger, jumping when he hears a lawn mower start. He gets involved with the VA, but (spoiler if you haven't heard the news) he is shot to death by a vet he is trying to help. As a side note, I find it fascinating that his death was not filmed. It took place after his book was published (there is nothing the in the film about the book) and is represented by a title card. It's as if Eastwood couldn't bear to show his hero's death.

I watched all of this with a curious distance. I never felt particularly engaged, either in Kyle's personal struggle or the battle scenes. Built into the film is a rivalry with an Iraqi sniper who won an Olympic medal for shooting. This kind of cowboy and Indian stuff sullies whatever message the film may have. Speaking of the enemy, I can understand that if you're a soldier you think very little of your opposites, and may call them savages or worse. But for the film to make no effort to counterbalance this kind of language is reprehensible. A better film, Lone Survivor, at least takes into account that Arabs or Persians might actually be human beings.

Eastwood directs with no special flair. The older he gets the faster he makes films, and the scenes just kind of lie there. I'm afraid that unless you're a real rah-rah kind of person, American Sniper is a real dud.

My grade for American Sniper: C-.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Seven Days in May

The early '60s were known for paranoid thrillers, like The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, which was released in 1964, directed by John Frankenheimer. Scripted by Rod Serling, it was a story about a general who tries to lead a military coup against the president.

The president (Fredric March) is hot for a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviets. Congress and the American people are down on it (his approval ratings are in the basement). The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Burt Lancaster) testifies before the Senate that it's a bad idea. His aide (Kirk Douglas) is also against it, but starts to smell a rat and comes to the shocking conclusion that Lancaster plans to take over the country by seizing all communications.

Serling, who of course was one of our greatest television writers, fashioned a snappy, suspenseful screenplay that is also warm and fuzzy about the Constitution, and is still relevant today. Lancaster today would be the type who would inspire hucksters like Bill O'Reilly (in the film he is trumpeted by right-wing pundit Hugh Marlowe) and sees his megalomania as superior patriotism. A showdown between March and Lancaster at the end of the film is a wow, with March telling Lancaster if he wants to change things, "Run for office!"

The film also stars Ava Gardner, who has spent intimate time with both Lancaster and Douglas, and Edmond O'Brien as one of March's allies, a Senator from Georgia who seems just like Sam Ervin (I think Ervin came first). O'Brien won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. I was also surprised to see John Houseman pop up as an admiral. This was Houseman's acting debut (he was, of course, a man of the theater and produced many of Orson Welles' productions)--he didn't make a second film until The Paper Chase nine years later.

With this film, Dr. Strangelove, and Fail Safe all happening in the same year, one could be excused for thinking we were on the cusp of Armageddon. Thankfully, fifty years later, it hasn't happened yet.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mythology

As I mentioned in my review of Heroides, I've been trying to read about Greek and Roman mythology. One of the standard texts on this subject is Edith Hamilton's 1942 book, simply called Mythology. She points out: "A book on Mythology must draw from widely different sources. Twelve hundred years separate the first writers through whom the myths have come down to us from the last, and there are stories as unlike each other as 'Cinderella' and 'King Lear.'

As previously stated, the myths of ancient Greece are very complicated, as a firm understanding of family trees and the various stories must be carefully delineated. Hamilton uses as her sources many different writers, such as Ovid, Homer, Virgil, the great Greek playwrights like Aeschylus and Euripides, and many other writers. Her stories are lucid and, dare I say, even funny, with a wink in one eye.

She runs through the major Greek and Roman myths. About the similar myths between those two cultures, and how the Romans simply borrowed the Greek myths with different names: "It was a simple matter to adopt Greek gods because the Romans did not have definitely personified gods of their own. They were a people of deep religious feeling, but they had little imagination. They could never have created the Olympians, each a distinct, vivid personality. Their gods, before they took over from the Greeks, were vague, hardly more than a 'those that are above.'

Hamilton, in a well-thought out structure, lays out the basics: the Titans, the Olympians, all the way down to the Lesser Gods. She tells many stories that we learn as children, but might never have fully understood, such as Pyramus and Thisbe, Pygmalion and Galatea, the Pegasus and Bellerophon. She writes of great heroes, like Perseus, Hercules, and Theseus. My favorite line from the Hercules story: "The fifth labor was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. Augeas had thousands of  cattle and their stalls had not been cleaned out for years. Hercules diverted the courses of two rivers and made them flow through the stables in a great flood that washed out the filth in no time at all." Perhaps only the Greeks could have had their great hero be a whiz at housecleaning.

We also hear about a goddess I'd never heard of before, Atalanta, who was a great athlete, though a woman. Nobody could beat her at races, until one day a fellow distracted her with golden apples and she lost, thus having to marry him. It's just typical of a woman to be mollified by shiny objects.

Hamilton also goes over, in summary, the Trojan War, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. We also get the sad story of Oedipus, one of mythology's unluckiest men.

Throughout, Hamilton provides a droll voice. Also speaking of Hercules: "He seems not to have liked music, which was a most important part of a Greek boy's training, or else he disliked his music master. He flew into a rage with him and brained him with his lute." Also speaking of music: "The flute was invented by Athena, but she threw it away because in order to play it she had to puff out her cheeks and disfigure her face. Marsyas, a satyr, found it and played so enchantingly upon that he dared to challenge Apollo to a contest. The god won, of course, and punished Marsyas by flaying him." Ouch!

Then there's the ongoing sit-com of Zeus and Hera. Zeus was a very busy fellow, constantly mating with humans and producing many offspring. Hera spent most of her time exacting revenge on Zeus' mates or their children.

Hamilton ends the book with a brief discussion of Norse mythology, which is quite a bit different than those of the Mediterraneans, and fitting when thinking of brooding Scandinavians. "The only sustaining support possible for the human spirit, the one pure unsullied good men can hope to attain, is heroism; and heroism depends on lost causes. The hero can prove what he is only by dying. The power of good is shown not by triumphantly conquering evil, but by continuing to resist evil while facing certain defeats." I think Garrison Keillor would agree.

I only wish I had read this book in school, and had more time to fully delve into this fascinating world. It's a violent, funny world, full of evil and heartbreak. It's the very first soap opera.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Like Marriage Italian Style, the earlier Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow is a film by Vittorio De Sica that is so ebulliently Italian that you may smell the Parmesan while watching. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film for 1964, and featured one of the greatest of cinematic teams, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, in three different stories set in different cities in Italy.

The first and longest is "Adelina," which takes place in the poor section of Naples. Mastroianni is perpetually unemployed, and the family gets by with his wife, Loren, selling black market cigarettes. She is fined, but does not pay, and will go to jail, until she finds out that she can not go to jail if she is pregnant or nursing. She and her hapless husband proceed to forestall the imprisonment by having seven children, until he is too exhausted to continue. Loren then has to decide if another will do the job, or she will go to prison.

The second story, "Anna," is about a Milanese women of leisure. She is driving a Rolls, and picks up her lover, who makes far less money. He feels inferior, but she insists she is mad about him. That is, until the Rolls gets in an accident, and he finds out exactly what her priorities are.

The final installment sees Loren as a high-class prostitute, who sees men of great wealth and power. One of the is Mastroianni, who is a neurotic son of an industrialist. But he is constantly interrupted by the goings-on in the apartment next door, where a young seminarian has fallen in love with her, much to the horror of his grandmother.

This is all great, bouncy fun, and outside of Fellini, is probably the definitive '60s Italian film. It shows us the poor, the rich, and the in-between, and touches on the nation's devotion to Catholicism and to luxury.

A very famous scene has Loren doing a striptease while Mastroianni is on the bed, barely able to contain himself and howling like a dog. This scene was replicated years later in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Teach Your Children

Today was my second day as a teacher and, while I'm not ready to throw in the towel and proclaim I made a mistake, I would say the honeymoon is over (if it ever really started).

Those who follow this blog know I made a big life change. I left New Jersey, moved to Las Vegas, and went through a program to get a teaching license. I had visions of teaching literature to the creme de la creme of high school students, discussing The Great Gatsby and Hamlet. Instead, things being what they are, I'm teaching 6th grade in a very poor district, where the kids are lucky if they get passing grade (and they can't get below fifty percent).

I accepted my fate and decided I was going to teach these kids the best that I could, and if I could at least reach a few I would be satisfied. After two days, though, I feel like I've been in a war zone, and I'm happy just to get through the day.

I try to remember my days as a sixth grader. My teacher was Mr. McLaughlin, who was pretty strict. We had him for all subjects, though, and I have three groups of kids for two periods each day. I think there are some fundamental differences between my sixth grade days, which were 1972-73, and today. First of all, kids are much more sophisticated. Maybe it's the Internet, maybe it's social media, maybe it's just the general breakdown of society, but these whippersnappers are canny, like velociraptors in on the kill. Secondly, there is absolutely no corporal punishment allowed today. Back in my day, the principal had a paddle he dubbed "The Board of Education," which had holes drilled in it for more speed. Mr. McLaughlin used to grab a kid by the skin under his chin. He only did that to me once, when I lost my math book.

So how do you exert discipline now? Yelling has some effect, but not much. These kids are like a room full of squirrels, always talking, always getting out of there seats. I think the key is that you have to establish rules and then back them up with punishment if they're broken. One of the rules I established, which was met with dismay, was that they could not listen to headphones in computer lab unless they had finished all assignments. This is, to most people, perfectly reasonable--headphone use is a privilege, and finishing assignments is basic to being a student. I had one tussle with a young lady today about it, who labeled me "mean and unfair." When I mentioned this to other teachers, they congratulated me. I eventually had to send his girl to the dean's office, because she resisted directions at all turns. I don't relish seeing her tomorrow. But if she thinks I'm mean now, she ain't seen nothing yet.

Tomorrow, as part of a unit on argument and debate, I'm going to show them Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. In my fantasy, they will listen with rapt attention, and some may be moved to tears. The reality is that they will find any excuse not to watch, to sneak looks at their phones, to talk to their neighbors, and to create general mayhem. All I can hope for is that the kids who want to learn will get something out of it. This is now my lot in life. Hopefully I will not be driven to drink.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Selma

What better way to spend the Martin Luther King holiday than seeing Selma, which is about a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights--the march from Selma, a city notorious for its refusal to allow blacks to register to vote, to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to lay at the feet of its segregationist governor the demand for justice. It is, quite simply, an outstanding work that makes history come alive without being hagiography.

The film has engendered some controversy, both for its snubs at the Oscars (it did receive a Best Picture nomination, but no nominations for director, screenplay, or acting) and for its bending of history at the expense of President Lyndon Johnson. I'm not enough of a Johnson scholar to comment on the latter, but as to the former, it is a shame, as director Ava DuVernay, writer Paul Webb, and lead actor David Oyelowo all deserve nominations.

Selma begins with King (Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize late in 1964. He is world famous, and the Civil Rights Act, which federally outlawed segregation, has been passed almost by sheer force of will by Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). But King wants a voting law passed, because without it, blacks can gain no political power in the South. The opening scene shows a woman (played by producer Oprah Winfrey) attempting to register. She has dutifully filled out all the paperwork, has memorized the preamble to the Constitution, and knows how many county judges Alabama has. But then the registrar asks her the judges' names. Of course he would never do this with a white person.

King swoops into Selma, with the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). The SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee) already are. A turf war erupts. One of the best things about this film is it doesn't sugar coat the side of righteousness. In a daring move that I don't think has been done in any film about King, it tacitly acknowledges his extramarital affairs.

A march is proposed, and is unsuccessful, and is now referred to as "bloody Sunday," as the marchers are ruthlessly beaten by state troopers. DuVernay, in her third feature, shows a firm hand here, showing the horrors straight up, without manipulation.

Meanwhile, King presses Johnson for legislation, even though the latter doesn't want to move on the issue yet. But TV coverage and front-page news of innocent people being viciously beaten stirs the waters, and for the next march, white Americans, mostly clergy, head to Selma.

I read a comparison of this film with Lincoln, and it's apt. Both are movies about great men, but portrayed in stories about backroom maneuvering. King and Johnson, though basically on the same page, are playing a chess game, with lives at stake. Like Lincoln, King was an indispensable man, a man who whether by luck or design was in the right place at the right time, and without whom things wouldn't have turned out the way they did.

Selma is beautifully acted, most of all by Oyelowo, who shows the man, not the myth. The film had the obstacle that it could not use his copyrighted material (it reminds me of Pollock, a movie about a painter that couldn't show his paintings). But we see how articulate and quick-thinking the man was, mostly in his off-the-cuff responses to reporters, when the pressman's eyes light up hearing the silver-tongued pronouncements live and in person.

I also admired Wilkinson, who though British had the jowly chief executive down (though didn't quite catch the accent); the same for Tim Roth, as the bigoted Governor Wallace, who somehow managed to stay in politics a long time before he was paralyzed by an assassination attempt. Of the many rights' workers, I think the best sub-plot was that of John Lewis, played by Stephan James. Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia, was part of SNCC, but saw the greatness in King and rose above petty bickering. He had his skull fractured during the first march.

The crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, which led out of Selma, and where the carnage took place, is a key moment in civil rights history. I've heard more than commentator say without it there would be no Barack Obama. Of course, as recent events have shown, we've still got a long way to go. If only we had someone like King now.

My grade for Selma: A.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker, one of the key players in the classic rock era, died last month. I didn't have any of his stuff in my collection, so I picked up a greatest hits album, and have been listening all week, much to my pleasure.

Cocker was one of a legion of young British men who loved American black music. When he passed, many described him as the greatest white soul singer of all time, which is kind of odd but there it is. His voice was a growl, coming from deep within the chest, and his movements were spasmodic and parodied. What I think is that he basically invented air guitar, and air piano, too.

Cocker was a vocalist only, and, unusually for rock stars of the period, was not a songwriter of any distinction. Of the eleven tracks on the album, he only wrote one, "High Time We Went," which is a fine tune. But mostly he was known for interpreting the music of other. To be more specific, The Beatles.

I have always maintained that there were only two Beatle songs that were bettered by others: Elton John's version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," and Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help From My Friends." Ringo's vocals on The Beatle version are, to be kind, a bit flat, and the song doesn't reach any heights, and is instead kind of an inside joke. But Cocker, man, he whips the shit out of this song. The version I've linked to, which closed his set at Woodstock, made him a star, and was one of the most scintillating moments at that legendary concert.

Cocker also covered the Abbey Road throwaway, "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," which, while not necessarily an improvement over The Beatles' version, does give it more importance, and again begs the question, what does it mean that "she could steal, but she could not rob?"

Other great songs of Cocker's are Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright," Leon Russell's "Delta Lady," which is a song I'm sure I've heard before but I didn't realize I liked so much, The Box Tops "The Letter,"  and Billy Preston's "You Are So Beautiful,"  which he renders with just enough pathos, but not too much to make it sappy (although, when we were kids, my cohort and I did laugh at that last note, in which his voice skips like a stone across a river).

Although Cocker performed all through the '80s and beyond, his last hit was the Oscar-winning son from An Officer and a Gentleman, "Up Where We Belong."  This is not a very good song, though at unguarded moments I may have hummed it, and it's interesting to note that this was a comeback for Cocker, even though he was only 38 years old.

In the obituaries for Cocker many mentioned his "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour. In an example of rock-star excess, it featured more than 30 musicians, including Leon Russell and three drummers, and almost bankrupted him. In the links I've used live versions of songs, since its easy to tell that though his studio versions are terrific, his greatest strengths were as a live performer.

So long, Joe. Enjoy Rock and Roll Heaven.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Inherent Vice

A word of advice for those who wish to watch and enjoy Inherent Vice: don't bother trying to follow the plot. It's Raymond Chandler through a cloud of cannabis haze, and I was lost after five minutes. No matter, though, I had a great time, as director P.T. Anderson has created a world that is a pleasure to visit, even if it does cause a contact high.

This is the first film adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon (unread by me), who is one of the most obscure writers in the American pantheon (he's so obscure there are no pictures of him). The story itself is a private-eye mystery, involving Nazi bikers, drug-dealing dentists, Chinese massage girls, and lots and lots of pot. Our hero is Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a kind of proto-Lebowski, shaggy of hair, frequently bare of foot, and more often than not baked. But he's a licensed P.I., and is approached by his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) about a plot to put her lover, a fabulously wealthy real estate mogul, into the booby hatch.

Phoenix, I believe, is in every scene, and he's great company as he traverses the very wacky world of the California beaches in 1970. His alter-ego, a crew-cutted cop played by Josh Brolin (a marvelously over the top performance), dogs his every step. Brolin is described by the narrator as "a bad luck planet in today's horoscope, here's the old hippie-hating mad dog himself in the flesh: Lieutenant Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. SAG member, John Wayne walk, flat top of Flintstone proportions and that evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations." Pretty soon the plot threads resemble a bowl of spaghetti, as Phoenix also gets involved in a search for a musician (Owen Wilson) who has been declared dead but is very much alive.

Anderson, as I'm sure Pynchon did, uses the tropes of the private-eye story in a twisted sense of parody. Some of this is very funny, as Anderson uses a variety of famous actors to pop up in bizarre cameos. They range from Benecio Del Toro as Phoenix's lawyer (who specializes in marine law), Reese Witherspoon as a D.A. who isn't too good to have an occasional roll in the hay with Phoenix, to Michelle Sinclair (also known as adult film star Bella Donna) who lets Phoenix know her preference is two men at a time. By the time Martin Short shows up in a purple suit, I was ready for anything.

I have loved some films by Anderson, and hated others. But one thing I can say about him is that he is consistent in creating worlds that are unique to him, all set in California. Inherent Vice is such a world, the days of hippie culture, or as the narrator describes, when girls wore bikini bottoms and faded Country Joe and the Fish t-shirts. The productions design by David Crank and costumes by Mark Bridges are spot-on, and the whole atmosphere seems just right, and put me back in a time and place that has roots in history but it also a state of mind. The opening shot, of the beach between two ramshackle houses, put us in a frame of mind immediately, and when Anderson returns to that shot it's like coming home.

There are some scenes of complete bafflement and whimsy. In a somewhat Taratino-esque move, Anderson interrupts a scene between Del Toro and Phoenix with them ordering lunch, and almost all the scenes between Phoenix and Waterston seemed incomprehensible. The last one may be because Waterston is gloriously naked, and thus I wasn't really concentrating on what she was saying.

Inherent Vice is not for all tastes, but I really dug it. I also loved the music, both the score by Jonny Greenwood and the selection of songs. I ordered the soundtrack upon coming home from the theater.

My grade for Inherent Vice: B+

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki has announced that The Wind Rises is his last film. It was released in 2013 and was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar (it lost to Frozen). It was somewhat controversial because it dealt with the story of the man who designed the Zero fighter plane, a killing machine. And it has a lot of cigarette smoking.

So I wasn't prepared for how wonderful a film this is. It's tough to decide if this is a better film than Miyazaki's masterpiece Spirited Away, because they are so different. The Wind Rises has no supernatural elements, unless you count the many dream sequences. It's grounded in reality, but it just as wondrous and beautiful as any of his other films.

This is the story of Jiro Horikoshi, who as a boy in the 1910s is fascinated by airplanes but because of bad eyesight knows he can never be a pilot. He dreams about an Italian plane designer, Count Caproni, who encourages him to follow his dreams. But he warns them that though airplanes are beautiful creations, their primary use is for war.

Jiro does become a plane designer, and is a great one. He works for a company that is preparing for war, and he is sent to Germany to study Junkers' designs. At the same time, this film is also a tender romance. He meets a young girl on a train, moments before a great earthquake hits Tokyo. He leads her to safety, but they lose touch, until they meet again years ago when he once again helps her (everytime they meet there is a large gust of wind). She is consumptive, so there is an urgency to their romance.

If you'd ever told me I'd get choked up watching a romance about an aeronautic engineer I would have laughed, but The Wind Rises is extremely poetic and touching. It's also very complex--Jiro knows his designs will be used as war machines, but he just wants to make something beautiful. At one point he tells his team that they could save weight by removing the guns from the plane, and everyone laughs, but you know deep down he's serious.

The animation is also breathtaking. This is hand drawn stuff-no motion capture CGI, which makes it all the more amazing how Miyazaki is able to reproduce human movement. In watching a simple scene of Jiro sitting down at his drafting table I marveled at how accurate the movements were. The dream sequences were also great. Everyone dreams differently, and thus no one can say that dreams are accurately presented on film, but these seemed like actual dreams.

The English-language voice cast is a good one: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiro and Emily Blunt as his girl, but also with Martin Short, John Kransinski, and Werner Herzog as a mysterious German who meets Jiro in Japan before the war. "Germany will blow up," he predicts. "Japan will blow up."

I'd also like to give kudos to Joe Hishaishi for a beautiful, haunting score. The Wind Rises is one of the best animated films I've ever seen.

Friday, January 16, 2015

NOS4A2

I know I'm in the grip of a good horror novel (a rarity) when I want to keep reading but hesitate because I'm worried about what will happen to the characters. That seems to happen only with writers in one family--Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill. I know Hill deserves to be treated as his own man, but the apple hasn't dropped far from the tree. This guy can scare the bejeesus out of me.

I fully enjoyed his last novel, Heart-Shaped Box, but I think he's topped himself with NOS4A2, especially in the creation of a first-class villain and a great heroine. It also has some very profound things to say about imagination, childhood, and parenthood.

We meet Victoria (Vic) McQueen when she's a little girl. She discovers she has a unique talent--she can find lost things. She does this by riding her bicycle over a nearly dilapidated bridge, which takes her exactly where the missing thing is, even if it's in a different state. Furthermore, the bridge doesn't exist in reality, just in her own mind.

She's set on a course to meet the murderous Charlie Manx, a kid-snatcher who has created his own diabolical world, Christmasland, where every day it's Christmas and children will be the same age for the rest of their lives and always be happy. But the reality is a bit different.

I found this creation of imaginary worlds fascinating, because I've always had a vivid fantasy life, and wondered if I could think hard enough I could make it real. Manx, in his twisted way, thinks he's helping children, but when he messes with Vic McQueen he's got a real battle on his hands.

The creation of Manx is the greatest part of the book. Part of his power is his car, a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, and the license plate reads NOS4A2, which represents Nosferatu, and Manx is described as looking very much like Max Schreck (I pictured him more as C. Montgomery Burns). He is probably over a hundred years old, and can survive an autopsy. "Against this background of drifting vapor, Manx was an apparition from a circus: the human skeleton crossed with the stilt walker, an impossibly tall and gaunt and ravaged figure in an archaic tailcoat. His misshapen bald head and beaky nose brought to mind vultures. The mist played tricks with his shadow, so it seemed he was walking downhill through a series of dark, Manx-shaped doorways, each bigger than the last."

Vic is another great character, who is scarred by a childhood encounter with Manx. She has a son whom Manx will attempt to exact revenge on, but she is one bad-ass chick, fully tattooed and riding a Triumph motorcycle, her body bruised and battered. There is a sweet relationship with the boy's father, Lou Carmody. The son, named Bruce Wayne Carmody, is another well-defined character: "It wasn't that he wanted to stay indoors. He wanted to stay inside his phone. It was his bridge away from a world where Mom was a crazy alcoholic and Dad was a three-hundred-pound car mechanic who had dropped out of high school and who wore an Iron Man costume to comic-book conventions."

Hill's style is very reminiscent of his father's, in that he uses very specific pop culture references and has a macabre sense of humor: "There was something awful about Christmas music when it was nearly summer. It was like a clown in the rain, with his makeup running." But he can write some breathtaking passages: "She was seventeen and unafraid and liked the sound of the wind rustling the ivy around the entrance of the bridge. She put her feet on the pedals and rode. She heard the tires bumpety-thump up onto the wood, heard the planks knocking beneath her. There was no sensation of drop, no ten-story plunge into the arctic cold of the Merrimack River. There was a building roar of white noise. There was a twinge of pain in her left eye."

Hill is not so distancing that he doesn't make references to his father's book, implying that they exist in the same world. He mentions the town of Derry, Maine, which is featured in many of King's books. I wonder if they could be convinced to write a book together.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar 2014: Almost Everything Is Awesome

I didn't bother publishing Oscar predictions this year, because social media has taken the fun out of it. Everyone just looks at everybody else's list and tweaks it so they're not copying, and it becomes a huge circle jerk, and the announcement of the nominations becomes a fait accompli.

I was pleasantly surprised this year. Although most of the nominations, especially those in the acting categories, followed true to form, there were some what-the-fuck omissions. I can't believe the  biggest is in the Best Animated Feature category, where the odds-on-favorite to win, The Lego Movie, wasn't even nominated. The theme song, "Everything Is Awesome," an earworm without much musical sophistication, was nominated in Best Song, but that was it for the mega-blockbuster. How did such a good film get blanked? Well, I haven't seen any of the other nominees, including the two hand-drawn films that haven't had major releases. Remember, the nominations come from the branches, not the entire Academy, so perhaps the Animated branch are full of old fogies who thought The Lego Movie was one long product placement (which, to be fair, it was). Other than that, I'm mystified.

I was also shocked that Life Itself, the film about beloved film critic Roger Ebert, was left out of the Best Documentary Feature category. The irony here is that director Steve James was famously snubbed 20 years ago for Hoop Dreams, which Ebert championed. That snub led to a complete overhaul of the Documentary nominating process, but it still didn't help James.

Otherwise, everything was fairly un-seismic. There were only eight Best Picture nominees, after three straight years of nine. The ninth, that failed to make the cut, was probably Foxcatcher, given that it's director, Bennett Miller, got a directing nomination. This is the first time since the Academy broadened the Best Picture field that a director was nominated for a film that wasn't nominated for Best Picture.

Selma did snag a Best Picture nomination, and other than The Lego Movie it's the story of the day. It only got one other nomination--Best Song--and after looking like a possible winner for Best Picture a month ago is now on the ash heap. Considering the racial tension right now, this doesn't make the Academy look good--it's the first time this century that no actors of color were nominated--and blaming it on not getting screeners out in time seems a bit of a pathetic excuse. Of course the Academy shouldn't pander to political correctness, but passing up nominating Ava DuVernay for a historic directing nomination will cause caterwauling.

One thing I'm happy about is that Jennifer Aniston was not nominated for Best Actress for her role in Cake. I have nothing against Aniston, and I'm sorry if she's having a bad day, but for an industry known for its reliance on publicity machines, her campaign for an Oscar seemed Machiavellian. She had an "award consultant," and mounted such an aggressive push for an award for a movie that hardly anyone has seen that it made it seem all more unsavory than it is (and it's pretty unsavory). Of course, I'm sure all five of the nominees have publicists who did a lot for them, but it wasn't so obvious.

Another film that underperformed was Gone Girl. None of the Best Picture nominees has earned over 100 million, which Gone Girl did. Only Rosamund Pike was nominated, for Best Actress. Who I thought may have been the favorite for Best Adapted Screenplay, Gillian Flynn, was skunked.

A few other things--Meryl Streep received her 19th nomination. She is the Bob Beamon of actresses (Google the name if you're too young to remember him). Robert Duvall got his seventh, and at 84, is the oldest man to ever be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He's been nominated in four different decades, but oddly, not in the 2000s. In the perennial bridesmaid category, we have Alexandre Desplat, who has been nominated eight times in the last nine years in the Best Musical Score category, but has never won, and Roger Deakins, perhaps the most respected living cinematographer, who now has 12 nominations but no win.

In circumstances that I believe are unprecedented, Glen Campbell, the legendary pop star, was nominated for Best Song for a documentary about him. He is an in-patient, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. I have never heard the song, but the emotions surrounding this award will be more taut than usual. I have to believe it will beat "Everything Is Awesome."

One final note, that I haven't seen anywhere else: Danielle Brisebois, who played Stephanie late in the run of All in the Family (the dreaded "add a kid" gambit), was nominated for writing a song from Begin Again. At first I thought she might be the only cast member of that show to receive an Oscar nomination, but Rob Reiner does have a nomination for producing A Few Good Men.

As with past years, as we lead up to the awards, on February 22nd, I'll take a deeper look at each of the major categories.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Ghost of Frankenstein

The last Universal film to feature Frankenstein's monster as the sole monster was 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein. By now Frankie was relegated to the B-film units, with lower production values. He was also played not by Boris Karloff, but by Lon Chaney Jr., deviating from his usual shtick as the Wolfman.

Branching out further on the Frankenstein family tree, we see that Henry Frankenstein had two sons. One was Wolf, played by Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein. But he has a brother, Cedric Hardwicke, as Ludwig. He is a famous doctor, seemingly not hurt by the reputation of his relatives. He has perfected the brain transplant, along with his colleague, Lionel Atwill, who was the teacher of Henry. How Ludwig is older than his father's teacher I don't know.

Meanwhile, the monster is thought dead, along with his caretaker Ygor (Bela Lugosi). But of course the monster never dies, and neither does Ygor, who even though riddled with bullets in the previous film is just fine. He digs through the hardened sulphur and finds his only friend, still ambulatory. They go for a stroll, and again showing the connection between the monster and small children, who do not fear him, he helps a little girl get her balloon. Naturally, the townspeople are horrified, and he kills a few of them.

Eventually Ygor will take the monster, who escapes imprisonment (they chain him to a chair, not understanding that the legs of the chair have to be just as strong as the chains) and he ends up with Hardwicke. The doctor wants to destroy him, but the ghost of his father suggests putting a new brain in him. Hardwicke thinks this is a fine idea, but Lugosi tricks Atwill into substituting Lugosi's brain. "With my brain in his body I could rule the world!" Of course this all ends badly for everyone involved.

It's not a bad film, but it is a significant step down from the first three films in the series. The Monster would be teamed up with Wolfie and Drac in a few other films, usually being revived at the end of the movie only to get burned up.

Notably in the cast is a young Ralph Bellamy as the local prosecutor, who is also the beloved of Frankenstein's daughter (Evelyn Ankers). I laughed when she sees the monster peering into her window and her response is to close the curtains. Sure, that'll keep 'em out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Heroides

I've long been interested in Greek and Roman myths, but the complexity of the tales is forbidding. The family trees and the names (which over time have taken on the quality of parody) are so hopelessly intertwined it's difficult to keep it all straight. But I'm rolling up my sleeves and reading a few volumes, including the Heroides, by Ovid, who was one of the great Roman poets.

Ovid's more famous recitation of myth was Metamorphoses, but Heroides has its own pleasure. Told in epistolary form, it's a series of 22 letters from one character of myth to another, almost entirely from female to male, which is itself unusual. Some of these pairings are more familiar to us than others--Penelope and Ulysses, Medea to Jason, Paris back to Helen and Helen back to Paris, Leander to Hero. But others were completely alien to me. I had never heard of Hypsiple, for example, or Canace and Macareus.

I was fortunate to read the translation and introductory remarks by Harold Isbell. Not only are the poems extremely readable to the common ear (the word "slut" makes more than one appearance), the intros and footnotes are elucidating. In the intro to Acontius to Cydippe, a pair that is new to my knowledge, he sums up the letters: "The idea of law has never been far from any of these letters, whether it be a code deduced from self-perception or a law imposed by statute. And certainly the suggestion that the beloved ought to be bound suggests not only being tied with ropes but also the idea of a bond or a surety given to guarantee the performance of some act. The letters of the Heroides...are concerned with a great variety of deceits that tailor objective facts to subjective desires. In each of these letters there is some failure of imagination to effect a correspondence between the mind and the reality it hopes for."

Some of these letters are pretty juicy, too. In the Acontius/Cydippe example, the former blames the latter for being too beautiful and thus causing him to pursue her:

"Had you been one of the lesser beauty you would
Be sought more modestly. By your charm
I am driven to boldness. All of this
has been caused by you:"

So "blaming the victim" goes back thousands of years.

Other fun letters are Phaedra to Hippolytus. She was perhaps the original cougar, as she tried to seduce her stepson:

"Do not worry  that our love must be concealed,
only ask the help of Venus and
she will hide us in the mantle of kinship;
we will be praised for our embraces
and I will seem to be a good stepmother."

This is the plot of several adult films.

In Helen's letter to Paris (we are reminded that Paris abducted Helen, which started the Trojan War), Helen begins in a pissed off mode:

"Since my eyes have been outraged by your letter,
there is now no glory in silence.
You, an alien, have broken the sacred law
of hospitality so that you
might trifle with a lawful wife's faithfulness."

Isbell makes some interesting interpretations. Of Ariadne, who helped Theseus escape the Labyrinth only to be dumped on an island, Isbell says that she's really just having a prolonged sulk. Medea, who has been studied every which way, and differently in feminist views, is described by Isbell: "Medea is a woman of deep and abiding emotions, but as swiftly as they are felt they are as swiftly out of control. Such a person living always on the edge of madness cannot be tolerated in a society which prizes the rule of law, in both the state and its individual citizens." Sort of a, "we know Jason did you wrong, but you went overboard."

This is a pretty good introduction to Roman myths, in that the poems are short and a lot of the major actors are here. I recommend this Penguin Classics edition for the outstanding head and footnotes.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Rips

Rips, by Ex Hex, is a throwback. It could have made been in any decade from the '60s on, as it's three players--guitars, bass, and drums, and the lyrics (from what I could understand) seem to be universal, undated themes, like love and fighting for what you believe in.

Ex Hex is one of the branches from the Sleater-Kinney tree, although you wouldn't know it from the liner notes--there are no writing credits, lyrics, or even a list of the band mates. From Wikipedia I learn that they are: Mary Timony, Betsy Wright, and Laura Harris. Timony used to be in a very good group called Helium, and then made one album with Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein in a group called Wild Flag. To further confuse things, Timony made a solo album called Ex Hex, a pair of words that apparently mean a lot to her.

Despite the mystery, there's nothing complicated about Rips, and that is to be praised to the sky. As I sit grumpily in the car, while my girlfriend listens to contemporary pop, hip-hop, or country, I wonder whether rock and roll exists anymore. It may not on the radio, but it can be found. Ironically, one of the better songs on this record is "Radio On," which may be a joke. There used to be all sorts of rock songs about radio, so I can only imagine this one is nostalgia.

Another good one is "Hot and Cold," which has a riff that seems to pay a homage to Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane," and "New Kid," in which a presumably new kid is told "you're a warrior."

When you Google Ex Hex and get the description of their Web site (www.exhexband.com) it says, "Ex Hex is what your older brother's friends listened to. It's what your babysitters listened to." That's exactly right. None of the songs are much over three minutes, and even while listening to it on CD you can imagine the needle sliding across the vinyl, maybe with a penny placed on the tone-arm. Ah, the good old days, kept alive by the likes of Ex Hex. Long may they thrive.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Unbroken

Who would have thought that blood-vial-wearing Angelina Jolie could make a straight-forward World War II movie, the kind your granddad, wearing his VFW regalia, would love. It's one of those testaments to courage and fortitude that can be eye-rolling, and I don't think any profanity was used, directly belying the evidence--I just read Ernie Pyle's comment on being embedded with U.S. troops: "If I hear one more fucking soldier saying fucking I will cut my fucking throat."

Despite the Hallmark Hall of Fame aspects of Unbroken, Jolie has made a damn good film. Of course, her best decision was using Roger Deakins as her D.P., as this is a stunningly good-looking film, from the violent beauty of a dogfight miles in the sky, the desolation of men stranded in a life raft for 45 days, to the industrial gray of a coal barge.

Unbroken is based on Laura Hillenbrand's wildly successful book about Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell). He was a juvenile delinquent who became a world-class runner, appearing in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He doesn't win, but hopes to go to the 1940 Games in Tokyo. Instead, he heads there as a POW. A comrade tells him, "be careful what you wish for."

The story begins with an impressively-filmed dogfight as Zamperini's plane makes a bombing run on a Japanese target. They take some flak, and limp home. The pilot is the calm Domnhall Gleeson, who is not shy about his faith. They later go on a rescue mission, but the plane they are given is a deathtrap, losing engines and crash-landing. O'Connell, Gleeson, and Finn Wittrock survive in a life raft. For 45 days they drift, catching fish. When they are picked up by Japanese troops, O'Connell tells Gleeson, "I've got good news and bad news."

The rest of the film is the brutal treatment they receive in the Japanese prison camp. The commander is Watanabe, played by a kind of sensual reptilian evil by Miyavi, a Japanese pop-star with no prior acting experience. It's another choice by Jolie that pays off, as though Miyavi may not be a good technical actor, but his use of his natural showmanship is thoroughly convincing.

O'Connell is quite good, but Garret Hedlund, as the highest-ranking officer in the barracks, steals some scenes with movie-star presence.

Where the film sags is the early scenes of Zamperini's ill-spent youth. He's incorrigible--drinking, smoking, stealing--the scourge of the neighborhood, who already mistrust his immigrant Italian family. The transformation, which happens when his elder brother encourages him to join the track team, seems awfully easy, and I imagine there's more there. But the battle of will between Zamperini and Watanabe, while cliched, makes the film resonate for me.

Jolie could have given Unbroken a more gritty film, but instead she went the complete opposite direction and made a film that could have been made in the '40s (without as much blood). I can't fault her for that decision, as this was the story she wanted to tell, and the one Zamperini (who was her neighbor) deserved.

My grade for Unbroken: B+.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Marriage Italian Style

Marriage Italian Style was a film from 1964 by Vittoria De Sica that is aptly titled. It veers wildly in tone, and one can only think, "well, that's Italian."

The story is told in flashback. Sophia Loren plays Filumena, who is the long-time mistress of businessman Marcello Mastroianni, appears to be dying. Mastroianni, who is planning a wedding to a young chippie, is annoyed at first and then, realizing she is really dying, agrees to marry her on her deathbed. But it's just a trick.

We learn that Mastroianni first met her during the war when she was 17 and working in a brothel (he is a client). He helps her during an air raid, and they will later become lovers. She continues to work as a prostitute, but he sees her between his business trips, sets her up in an apartment, and basically is her husband in everything but name.

The second-half twist is that Loren has three sons, and tells Mastroianni that he is the father of one of them, but won't tell him which one, because he wants to treat them equally. The boys don't know she's their mother, and there's a big dramatic scene when she calls them together. This is the scene that got her an Oscar nomination for the role.

The movie mixes melodrama and light comedy and it doesn't always gel. Of course, this is an Italian cinematic trait, best done by Fellini. De Sica, who made the incredible naturalistic drama Bicycle Thieves, doesn't seem at home in this style of film. Mastroianni, who is almost always effortlessly charming, is not so here, playing a cad who's redemption seems forced.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Good Earth

Last week actress Luise Rainer died. She received respectful obituaries, but it can't be held against anyone if they'd never heard of her--except for a brief return in 1997, she hadn't made a movie in about 70 years. But Oscar geeks knew her well--she was the first performer to win back to back to Oscars, and was the longest lived Oscar winner--when she died last week she was 104 years old.

She won her first Oscar for The Great Ziegfeld in 1937, and wasn't the favorite to win the next year, for her role as a Chinese farmer's wife in The Good Earth. But win she did, and she would ever after feel like it was a curse rather than a blessing. She didn't like the roles that were offered her, and retired. She made three films in 1938, one in 1943, and then one in 1997.

As for The Good Earth, it's a fairly good film but one has to get past a huge obstacle: all the characters are Chinese, but most of the actors are European. It was considered to use Chinese actors (a few, such as Keye Luke, are used), and Irving Thalberg (this was the last film he shepherded as studio boss at MGM) thought it over and realized it wouldn't make financial success. There was a Chinese movie star, Anna May Wong, and she was considered for the role. But she couldn't play the part opposite Paul Muni (who played the farmer) because the Hays Code had anti-miscegenation rules. Therefore, even though Muni was playing a Chinese man, he couldn't be seen onscreen married to a Chinese actress. Idiocy.

The film was based on Pearl S. Buck's novel about hardship and success. The film begins with Muni taking Rainer for his bride, sight unseen. She's a kitchen slave in the "Great House," the lords of the village. Muni lives with his father (Charlie Grapewin) farming wheat, and every little thing impacts the harvest. Muni wants more, and buys more land, but a famine wipes everything out. The family heads south, where they live in abject poverty, but Muni does not sell his land.

They get caught up in the revolution, and Rainer, joining a band of looters in mansion, finds a bag of jewels. She's almost executed for stealing, but she and the family go back north and with the proceeds of selling the jewels, Muni becomes a very big man, even buying the house where Rainer was once a slave. But great wealth spoils him. He takes a second wife, a much younger woman, who seduces his younger son. It's only when everything he owns is threatened by a plague of locusts that he realizes that Rainer was the best woman he could have had.

If you can get over the general insult of white actors playing Chinese, this film holds up okay. There are some thrilling scenes, such as when Rainer is nearly trampled to death in the looting, or the locust finale, which has some fairly good special effects (along with close-ups of actual locusts munching on plants). Rainer's role, as befits a character who defers to her husband always, is subtle, and it's rather remarkable she did win again, since she doesn't have a chance for scenery chewing (the favorite that year was Greta Garbo in Camille, who gave one of the great death performances of all time). Rainer dies in The Good Earth, but very passively, as people usually die.

It was somewhat startling to think that a woman who had won an Oscar over 75 years ago was still alive. Winning an Oscar, if you're a woman, seems to be a boost for longevity: Olivia De Havilland is now the oldest Oscar-winner. She's 98.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Lady and Her Monsters

As I've been immersing myself in a lot of Frankenstein lately, I thought it would be good to read The Lady and Her Monsters, by Roseanne Montillo, which is sort of a catch-all about the book, published by Mary Shelley in 1818. It is a biography of Mary, who was the daughter of the great thinkers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and later the wife of the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It also takes a look at the science behind her novel, specifically the experiments of Giovanni Aldini.

Montillo covers a lot of ground in this book, and at times it's a bit scatter-shot, but all in all it's very informative. The notion of bringing dead tissue back to life dates back to the days of the alchemists, and to the the likes of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa (Victor Frankenstein, in the novel, is a young fan of the writings of these two). Much later, Luigi Galvani would use frogs and electric sparks to show movement in dead tissue: "He was showing that the frogs' muscle contractions were the result of the vital fluid that circulated within their bodies. This fluid was then instigated to revitalize by a metallic arc that touched the crural nerves and muscles. The fluid then became excited, so to speak, which caused the movements in the frogs' limbs."

It was his nephew, Aldini, who took the experiments further. He had to go to England, because in Bologna, where he came from, executed prisoners were decapitated, which kind of eliminated any chance of them being re-animated. Montillo writes of a gruesome public display when Aldini hooks up electricity to a corpse, which makes its muscles, including those of the face, twitch. The corpse was not brought back to life, though--he could not restart the heart.

Mary knew about this. Percy, Montillo writes: "a poet, science aficionado, and fan of the macabre, was the one who introduced her to many of the scientific properties and theories exploding around her. He even went so far as the demonstrate certain experiments to her. Along with all of that, the literary publications of the time provided her with a good foundation."

Mary's mother, who was an early feminist, died in childbirth. She was brought up her father, who was a great reformer. Percy, who was already married, took a shine to her perhaps because of who her parents were. In any event, they eloped, which enraged Godwin. Her half-sister, Jane Claremont (who would later become known as Claire. Percy seems quite the cad--he later had an affair with Claire (and perhaps fathered a child by her). Percy's wife conveniently committed suicide, overwrought by his dreadful treatment of her.

The famous story of the birth of Frankenstein is also told here. In 1816 (the year without summer due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia) the Shelleys, Claire, Lord Byron (who is described here as having the reputation of a "lascivious, shocking madman") and Byron's personal physician John Polidori vacationed on Lake Geneva together. Byron suggested a ghost story contest, and Mary had had a dream about a man who created life but came to regret it. Montillo shows evidence of certain aspects of the novel, such as the origin of the name of her main character: during a three-hour walk through the woods in Germany: "The real Frankenstein family had settled in a formidable castle overlooking the Darmstadt region, where their deeds, famous and infamous, began to be recorded in the annals of history."

It turns out that in the 1400s, the Castle Frankenstein would withstand an attack by none other than Vlad the Impaler, who inspired another major character of horror literature. Later there was an inhabitant named Johann Konrad Dippel, who was an alchemist. He had a laboratory where he used a "philosopher's stone" to attempt to turn metal into gold. The villagers, particularly the clergy, became quite upset: "How dare he fiddle with the mysteries of creation? they asked. How dare he believe himself a god, capable of prolonging life, or even creating it anew? And the villagers saw him as nothing than the devil's minion, someone whose soul had been sold in exchange for forbidden knowledge."

Montillo also includes a chapter on the history of grave robbers, focusing on the infamous Burke and Hare, who didn't rob graves but cut out the middle man by killing people and selling them to a Dr. Knox. These two operated years after the publication of Frankenstein, but because of the association with ghoulish behavior and the creation of the monster, it seems sort of appropriate.

The Lady and Her Monsters is informative for Frankenstein buffs, and not a bad introduction to those interested in the subject. Her prose is a bit dry, though the stuff about Percy and Mary's romance has elements of winking good fun, as when Montillo reveals that the two had trysts in the churchyard cemetery while Claire stood guard.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Internal Enemy

"During the early nineteenth century, Virginians thought of blacks in two radically different ways. On the one hand, masters often felt secure with, and even protective of, particular slaves well known to them. But when thinking of all slaves collectively, the Virginians imagined a dreaded 'internal enemy' who might, at any moment, rebel in a midnight massacre to butcher white men, women, and children in their beds."

So writes Alan Taylor in his informative if repetitive The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832, which won the Pulitzer Prize last year. Though the dates specified cover a sixty-year span, much of the book concerns the War of 1812, when Southerners (specifically those in the Chesapeake Bay area) were confounded by their slaves escaping to fight for the British.

"About 3,400 slaves fled from Maryland and Virginia to British ships during the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, most of the refugees resettled in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Trinidad, while a few scattered throughout the global British Empire. In their new communities, the refugees confronted discrimination, but they achieved far more autonomy and material success than they had known as slaves in the Chesapeake."

One of the major themes of the book, which Taylor writes many different ways, is the basic hypocrisy of the American love of liberty: a people fighting a revolution for freedom kept thousands in servitude, simply because of their skin color. Whenever I've read books involving the U.S. versus some other foreign country, my natural jingoism has always had me root for the home team, but in this case I found myself delighted with scenes of Virginian plantation owners vexed by mass escapes of their chattel to British warships. It's almost a shame that the U.S. won the war (though they did so because the British tired of it, and were dealing with Napoleon at the same time.

In any event, these bon mots of hypocrisy are delicious to read: "Preferring to think of themselves as champions of liberty against British tyranny, Americans hated being cast instead as barbaric for their colonial practice of un-English slavery. Indeed, British imperialists derided their colonial critics as canting hypocrites who preached liberty while practicing slavery." Plantation owners cried foul over British warships excepting slaves, although when they were recompensed after the war they didn't want the slaves back, they wanted money.

And what should a psychologist make of a people who believe that slavery is good and true and right, only to be always worried that these same slaves will rise as one and murder masters in their bed? Deep down, it seems to me, they knew what they were doing was wrong, but rationalized the hell out of their crimes.

Of Taylor's discussion of the fear of slave revolt, it's amazing to see how little grounded it was. Only one insurrection, that of Nat Turner's in 1831, involved murder on a mass scale (100 killed), and he receives scant attention in this book. "Despite their bloodthirsty reputation as 'the internal enemy,' the enslaved bore their blows with remarkable restraint, rarely killing their tormentors. Between 1785 and 1831, the Virginia county courts convicted only 148 slaves of killing a white person; about three per year in a state with a white population in excess of 500,000. Far more often, slaves faced trial for arson or theft." One man was hung for stealing a pig.

Part of this fear was stoked by the revolution in Saint-Domingue, today known as Haiti. This boiled the blood of everyone in the South, not excluding our great champion of liberty, Thomas Jefferson. "His administration also sought to to isolate and impoverish the new republic of Haiti (the renamed Saint-Domingue), which he dreaded as a dangerous example to American slaves: 'The existence of a negro people in arms, occupying a country it has soiled by the most criminal acts, is a horrible spectacle for all white nations.'"

There are some major ideas I was unaware of that the book discusses, such as the fierce animosity between the Federalists of New England and the Republicans of the South. The New England states contemplated secession. The Virginians were hopping mad they they were left with little defense along their shores, mainly because their fighting men were routed up north for a futile attempt to invade Canada.

I also found funny the hatred between Americans and British. Of course, the Revolution was still fresh in everyone's minds, but the British really hated their cousins. "British officers detested most Americans as greedy cheats, long on cunning but short on scruples. 'They will do anything for money,' a captain concluded." Things haven't changed much.

Most uplifting is the valor with which escaped slaves fought their liberators. Some British were skeptical, and were no different from Americans who thought them lazy and stupid. They won them over, though, and also benefited from their knowledge of the terrain. This would be repeated during the Civil War, when blacks fought for their own freedom.

Prince Avalanche

David Gordon Green, after a dubious career turn making stoner comedies, has returned to his roots with the 2013 film Prince Avalanche, which is essentially a small, two-character study about men working on a road crew.

Paul Rudd is the boss, who seems like one of those guys who has always wanted to write the great American novel. He has a Freddy Mercury mustache and is in love with a woman but with a child but spends too much time away from her.

His partner is her brother, Emile Hirsch, a young lout who doesn't seem interested in much more than partying and sex. Rudd likes him okay, but doesn't think he'll amount to anything. He's amazed that Hirsch has yet to learn how to gut a fish.

The two have the incredibly tedious job of painting yellow lines down a highway that in Texas that has been closed due to wildfires. I would have thought, and I believe I have seen, trucks that do this, but these two push a cart-like object, and when they are done for the day camp by the side of the road.

Of course each will have a momentous event to deal with in their lives. They will fight and make up and come to an understanding (and drunkenly paint squiggly lines on the road). They are periodically visited by a good ol' boy truck driver, who offers advice and whiskey. Rudd meets a woman who lost her house during the fire, and she later appears like a phantom.

The film is a little too slow and modest to be moving. I did like the change of pace for Rudd, who doesn't play the twinkly guy we've seen in so many Judd Apatow movies.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Porco Rosso

I'm still making my way through the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and I've come to his 1992 film, Porco Rosso, about a great airplane pilot who happens to be a pig.

Miyazaki has shown repeatedly that he is fascinated with airplanes and other flying machines (his last film, which I'll get to shortly, is another), and this one is full of fantastic scenes of aerial daring-do. It is not set in Japan, but rather Italy during the 1930s. A great war hero, the title character, was turned into a pig by a magic spell, but still works as a bounty hunter, battling pirates. He has the kind of deadpan wit of a Raymond Chandler character (and is voiced gruffly in the English-language version by Michael Keaton).

An arrogant American flyer (Cary Elwes) comes along and puts Porco into the drink, forcing him to head to Milan to have his plane rebuilt. He's surprised that his usual mechanic's granddaughter (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) will rebuild and redesign the plane, and the two rivals will have a spectacular dogfight to settle who is the best.

As Miyazaki's films go, this one was rather slight and barely interesting, unless you're really into planes. It owes a lot to old films, such as having a scene with a beautiful singer (as the voice actress, Susan Egan, pointed out, she's an American actress playing an Italian character in Japanese film singing in French). But there's just not enough conflict to keep the thing sustainable.

I watched this film with captions, and was fascinated by how they didn't match the English that was spoken (for instance, Elwes says he is from Texas, but the caption says Alabama). I wonder how these things are done? Perhaps the captions are straight translations of the Japanese, while the spoken is an adaptation that does not translate strictly?

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Into the Woods

There was some alarm when it was announced that the Disney would be making the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's distinctly anti-Disney musical, Into the Woods. Thankfully, there are no cute furry woodland creatures, and the somber overall tone of the piece is intact. Like Sondheim's show, this film owes much more to Bruno Bettelheim than Walt Disney.

The plot is a mash-up of various Brothers Grimm characters--Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Cinderella, and Rapunzel encountering the dark night of their souls in the woods, which certainly represents our elemental fears. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim posited that fairy tales were metaphors for our fears, whether they be losing our parents, our children, sexuality, or wholesale slaughter of our village.

The linchpin of the film is Sondheim's own creation, a childless baker and his wife. The "witch next door" reveals that they are childless because his father stole from her garden, including some magic beans. But she will lift the curse if they find four items in three days.

Meanwhile, the other characters head into the dark woods to find the answer to their wish. Cinderella, of course, wants to go the ball and Jack is to sell his dried-out cow, even if she is his best friend; and Little Red Riding Hood is visiting her granny. There are two princes in this story--one falls in love with Cinderella at the ball, even though she runs from him every night, and another hears the lilting voice of Rapunzel, who is the adopted (kidnapped) daughter of the Witch, who keeps her in a doorless tower.

The first act of the film is a fairly cheery recitation of fairy tale tropes, with everyone getting their wish. But the second act is like a kid stepping all over his miniature play set, as everyone is attacked by a giant looking for revenge.

I mostly enjoyed Into the Woods, though it is for acquired tastes, as most of Sondheim is. The opening number, which repeats the phrase "Into the woods," over and over, is very catchy, and I'm still humming it, but the other music is much more complex. Sondheim's genius for lyrics is on display, especially in the Witch's number about her garden:

'Cause I caught him in the autumn
In my garden one night!
He was robbing me,
Raving me,
Rooting through my rutabaga,
Raiding my arugula and
Ripping up my rampion
(My champion! My favorite!)-

Who else could write a song name-checking various root vegetables?


The second act, though, takes a strong stomach. The giant creates mayhem across the village, and I may be stretching, but there seems to be a connection to the real-life destruction of war. Fairy tales are universal in their themes, and though the Brothers Grimm knew nothing of world wars, Sondheim and Lapine have applied modern horrors to the work.

There are changes from the stage musical. One character is given life who died in the musical is given life, or rather they are basically dropped from the story. But others who died still die and are not saved by Disney pixie dust. Also, early in the story, the very creepy scene between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (played with brio by Johnny Depp) is left intact. His song, "Hello, Little Girl," drips with pedophilia, and her song, after her "encounter" with him, "I Know Things Now," could be (should be?) seen as a girl's post-virginal outlook.

The film looks terrific, with fantastic photography by Dion Beebe and production design by Dennis Gassner. Rob Marshall, who seems to be the go-to guy for musicals today (for good or ill) manages to mostly stay out of the way, and let the source material alone. However, there is an unevenness of tone--at times the meta-jokes (such as Red Riding Hood saying to Cinderella: "You talk to birds?"), though engendering laughs, took me out of the story.

This extends to some in the cast, which is mostly excellent. I thought Meryl Streep's Witch was a little too self-conscious, especially in the second act. But Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, James Corden as the baker, and Emily Blunt as the baker's wife are terrific. As the two princes, Chris Pine gets much more to do than Billy Magnussen, and gets the best line: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."

My grade for Into the Woods: B.